"I’LL JUST SHOW YOU SOME IMAGES,” Sunil Shanbag said, and what had begun as a talk about his life and work quickly turned into a multimedia presentation on Mumbai theatre in the 1970s and 1980s. It was a December evening in 2012, and the National Gallery of Modern Art’s midsize auditorium in Bangalore, where Shanbag was speaking, was more than half full. Many in the audience were young performance-makers, dancers and writers—an indication of the growing interest the Mumbai-based director’s work has attracted in the rest of India. Over the years, the work done by Theatre Arpana, which Shanbag leads, has grown in scale, as has its ability to draw large audiences in urban India. From the landmark Cotton 56, Polyester 84, a 2006 play about the lives of Mumbai’s textile-mill workers, Arpana has expanded to stage productions such as Maro Piyu Gayo Rangoon, an adaptation of All’s Well That Ends Well, which Shanbag took to the World Shakespeare Festival in the UK in 2012, and which played five shows at the Globe in London early last month.
That day in Bangalore, Shanbag took a look back on his forty years in theatre, working variously as an actor, a producer, lighting designer and director. A short man with a slight stoop and a turtle tattoo on the left side of his neck, Shanbag was dressed as he usually is: monochrome linen shirt, worn untucked with sleeves rolled up, formal trousers and simple shoes. He sported his signature salt-and-pepper goatee, and a pair of spectacles on a band that are more often on his head or inches above his eyebrows than on his nose. He propped himself against a desk, and there was dim lighting from the front so as not to interfere with the photographs he was projecting onto a white backdrop.